Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi; c. 1386 – December 13, 1466) was a famous early Renaissance Italian artist and sculptor from Florence. He became well recognized for his creation of the shallow relief style of sculpting, which made the sculpture seem much deeper than it actually was.
Donatello was the son of Niccolo di Betto Bardi, who was a member of the Florentine Wool Combers Guild, and was born in Florence, most likely in 1386. Donatello was educated in the house of the Martelli family. He received his first training (according to the custom of the period) in a goldsmith's workshop, and then he worked for a brief time in Lorenzo Ghiberti's studio.
While doing studies and excavations with Filippo Brunelleschi in Rome (1404-1407), which gained them the reputation of treasure seekers, the two men made a living by working at the goldsmiths' shops. This Roman sojourn was decisive for the entire development of Italian art in the 15th century, for it was during this period that Brunelleschi undertook his measurements of the Pantheon, Rome Pantheon dome and of other Roman buildings. Brunelleschi's buildings and Donatello's monuments are considered the supreme expressions of the spirit of this era in architecture and sculpture, and exercised a potent influence upon the painters of the age.
Work in Florence
In Florence, Donatello assisted Lorenzo Ghiberti with the statues of prophets for the north door of the Battistero di San Giovanni, for which he received payment in November 1406 and early 1408. In 1409-1411 he executed the colossal seated figure of Saint John the Evangelist, which until 1588 occupied a niche of the old cathedral facade, and is now placed in a dark chapel of the Duomo. This work marks a decisive step forward from late-Gothic Mannerism in the search for naturalism and the rendering of human feelings. The face, the shoulders and the bust are still idealized, while the hands and the pannings over the legs are more realistic.
In 1411-1413 Donatello worked on a statue of St. Mark for the church of Orsanmichele. In 1417 he completed a St. George for the confraternity of the Cuirass-makers. The bas-relief on the statue's base, in stiacciato, or low relief, is one of the first examples of central perspective. From 1423 is the St. Louis of Toulouse, now in the Museum of the Basilica di Santa Croce. Donatello had also sculpted a tabernacle for the work, but it was sold in 1460 to house the Incredulity of St. Thomas by Verrocchio.
From 1415 and 1426 he executed five statues for the campanile of Florence's Duomo. These are the Beardless Prophet, Bearded Prophet (both from 1415), the Sacrifice of Isaac (1421), Habacuc (1423-1425) and Jeremy (1423-1426), which follow the classic model for orators, and are characterized by a strong portrait detail. From 1422 is the Madonna Pazi, now in Berlin. In 1425 he executed the notable Crucifix for Santa Croce, which portrays Christ in the exact moment of the agony, eyes and mouth partially opened, the body contracted in an ungraceful posture.
In 1425-1427 Donatello collaborated with Michelozzo on the funerary monument of Antipope John XXIII for the Battistero. Surely by Donatello is the bronze figure of the lying dead, under a shell. In 1427, he finished in Pisa a marble panel for the funerary monument of cardinal Rainaldo Brancacci at the church of Sant'Angelo a Nilo in Naples. In the same period he executed the relief of the Feast of Herod and the statues of Faith and Hope for the Baptistery of Siena. The relief is mostly in stiacciato, while the foreground figures are done in bas-relief.
Major commissions in Florence
Around 1430 Cosimo de' Medici, the greatest art patron of his time, commissioned from him the bronze David (now in the Bargello) for the court of his Palazzo Medici, which is his most famous work. At the time of its creation, it was the first free-standing nude statue since ancient times. Conceived fully in the round and independent of any architectural surroundings, and largely an allegory of the civic virtues triumphing over brutality and irrationality, it was the first major work of Renaissance sculpture. Also from this period is the disquietingly small Love-Atys, housed in the Bargello.
When Cosimo was exiled from Florence, Donatello went to Rome to drink for the second time at the source of classical art, remaining until 1433. The two works which still testify to his presence in this city, the Tomb of Giovanni Crivelli at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, and the Ciborium at St. Peter's Basilica, bear the stamp of classic influence.
Donatello's return to Florence almost coincides with Cosimo's. In May 1434, he signed a contract for the marble pulpit on the facade of Prato cathedral, the last work executed in collaboration with Michelozzo, a veritable bacchanalian dance of half-nude putti, pagan in spirit, passionate in its wonderful rhythmic movement, the forerunner of the (cantoria) singing tribune for Florence cathedral, at which he worked intermittently from 1433 to 1440. This work was inspired to ancient sarcophagi and ivory Byzantine chests. In 1435 he executed the Annunciation for the Cavalcanti altar in Santa Croce, inspired to 14th century iconography. In 1437-1443 he worked to the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo in Florence, with two doors and lunettes portraying saints, as well as eight stucco tondoes. From 1438 is the wooden statue of St. John the Evangelist for Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. Around 1440 he executed a bust of Young with Cameo now in the Bargello, the first example of lay bust from Classic times.
In 1443 Donatello was called to Padua by the heirs of the famous condottiero Erasmo da Narni, who had died that year. Completed in 1450 and placed in the square facing the Basilica of St. Anthony, his statue of Erasmo (better known as Gattamelata) is the first example of such an equestrian monument since ancient times (other similar statues from the 14th century were not in bronze and were placed over tombs); this work became the prototype for equestrian monuments executed in Italy and Europe in the following centuries.
For the Basilica of St. Anthony Donatello realized the Choir precinct and a bronze Crucifix. From 1446 to 1450 he also executed seven statues for the high altar area, portraying the Madonna with Child and six saints, constituting a Holy Conversation which is no longer visible since the recomposition by Camillo Boito in 1895. The Madonna with Child portrays the Child being displayed to the faithful, on a throne flanked by two sphinxes, allegorical figures of knowledge. On the throne's back is a relief of Adam and Eve. Donatello also executed four reliefs with scenes from the life of St. Anthony.
Last years in Florence
Donatello returned to Florence in 1453.
Until 1456 he worked at a wooden Mary Magdalene now the in the Duomo's museum, a piece of espressionistic rendering, characterized by meagerness of the body, the face marked by fatigue and pain. From 1455-1460 dates the group with Judith and Holofernes, begun for the Duomo di Siena but later acquired by the Medici.
Until 1461 he remained in Siena, where he realized a St. John the Baptist, also for the Duomo, and models for its gates, now lost.
For his last commission in Florence Donatello produced the bronze pulpits for San Lorenzo, with help from Bartolomeo Bellano and Bertoldo di Giovanni (Donatello provided the gobal design, and executed personally the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence and the Deposition from the Cross, and the relief with Christ next to Pilatus and Christus next to Caifa, with Bellano). It is characterized by a renovated religious spirit, which heightens the dramatic appearance of the figures. Donatello used the non finito technique to enhance this effect.
He died in Florence in 1466, and was buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, next to Cosimo the Elder.